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Spark in their step: Players happy to hoop it up again

Maui High School student Jordyn Luna drives against fellow Saber Jacy Dela Cruz during a pickup game Sept. 12 at Wailuku Elementary School Park. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

WAILUKU — It was only a pickup game, but it meant the world to the participants.

On Saturday morning, girls basketball players from Maui High School, Kamehameha Maui and King Kekaulike gathered at the outdoor court behind Wailuku Elementary School to play the game they love.

It was a little bit of a preview of what could be in the Maui Interscholastic League girls ranks this school year after one of the most competitive seasons ever ended in February. MIL sports are on hold for now as most schools around the state continue distance learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s really fun,” Maui High junior Makena Stevenson said. “School is really long and tiring, we’re always on the computer, so it’s really good to get out here and get some fresh air and some sun for sure.”

Stevenson is a cross country runner as well and is hopeful that MIL and state authorities can find their way back to playing sports soon.

Players play a pickup game Sept. 12. Members of the Sparks Basketball Maui club team have joined non-club members and boys players for pickup games the last two weekends.

The Lahainaluna, King Kekaulike and Maui High girls basketball teams all finished within two games of each other last season –and those three teams lost a total of three players to graduation.

“Yeah, I’m super excited for the season,” Stevenson said. “I really hope there is one — that’d be awesome if there was.”

Several of the players are members of the Sparks Basketball Maui club team, but the gathering that has taken place the last two Saturdays has also included non-club members and boys players. The players in the games rotate in and out every few minutes and Sparks coach Victor Aguirre even takes the court at times.

“This is really important,” Stevenson said. “To be able to hang out with my teammates and bond again — because really the last time we saw them was when COVID started, which was such a long time ago — it’s really cool to get things going back to normal.”

Aguirre has been organizing small workout groups for the last three months as gyms have been closed due to the pandemic.

Maui High’s Lyndee Sabas (from right) shoots over Kamehameha Maui’s Ku‘u Ruidas, Maui High’s Leiana Thornton and Kamehameha Maui’s Makamaenani Kaili-Kramer on Sept. 12.

The action ran for more than three hours Saturday morning and most of the players left the court exhausted, but with smiles on their faces.

“I think we’re having a lot of fun,” said Ku’u Ruidas, a junior at Kamehameha Maui. “When we first did this we were going all out and not realizing how long we were playing full court because really we’ve been working a lot of half-court stuff, so once we did full court we thought we were in condition, but we got tired way faster.”

Leiana Thornton, another Maui High junior, was clearly enjoying herself as she came off the court on Saturday.

“We’ve been away from actual basketball for so long,” Thornton said. “We practice in groups and everyone is getting together one day a week, being able to have fun and play since we haven’t in so long, it’s really special. It’s a long time during the day, but no one really minds because we’re having so much fun.”

Thornton said it is good for the players’ collective psyches to get out and play.

“It’s super good because this whole time that we’ve been training on our own at home, when we couldn’t practice together, and even just training during the week and not being able to play, seeing our teammates, this all just shows us what we’re working for,” she said. “It reminds us how much we want to keep playing and how much we want things to return to normal.”

Thornton’s twin sister Kayla is a college prospect who has drawn interest from several schools.

“I think it’s a good opportunity to come back from quarantine and actually get work in because we’ve been at home and social distancing and it was getting hard getting back into shape,” Kayla Thornton said. “Nothing is like coming back to practice, rather than working out, because you’re with your teammates. It helps a lot because we get back into the game.”

Aguirre was hired as the Maui High coach in June after five years as head coach for Kamehameha Maui. He emphasized that the Saturday mornings are simply pickup games for the players to enjoy basketball and their friends.

Off the court, social distancing is practiced and face masks are worn. Maui County rules are posted at the court and followed religiously.

“We’re just playing pickup ball,” Aguirre said. “So if you noticed, we’re not really coaching and we (coaches) play. We’re trying to follow the county rules that are posted, so 10 (at a time) can play, they don’t have to have masks. Everybody else (off the court) are six feet apart and wearing masks, so we’re just following the county rules.

“The only time they get to see each other is when we play pickup like this. It is important to them. I think it helps them with their whole social thing — I have to actually separate them and remind them of the rules.”

Aguirre is hopeful that an MIL season will take place in the 2020-21 academic year.

“Really hopeful, I hope it happens,” he said. “I mean there’s been really good examples of basketball working in the Mainland, in New York and stuff. They were playing tournaments this whole time through the COVID and I haven’t really heard where a basketball tournament or a basketball league has been a spreader.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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